Daniel’s Nightmare – Sermon on Daniel 7.1-18

(Preached at Bullocks UMC and Stem UMC on November 18th 2012)

Youtube videos of the sermon at Stem UMC:  

Daniel 7.1-18: In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: (2) I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four
winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, (3) and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. (4) The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. (5) Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” (6) After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. (7) After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. (8) I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly. (9) As I watched, thrones were set it place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. (10) A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened. (11) I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. (12) As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. (13) As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. (14) To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (15) As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. (16) I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: (17) “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. (18) But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever.”

Dreams are beginnings. It is through our dreams that we discover images of what could be, what may be, and perhaps most exciting, what will be. The dream in Daniel 7 presents for us the fullness of a vision where God’s glory is revealed. I imagine that, rather than a just a simple dream, Daniel was having a nightmare. He tossed and turned under the warm cover of his bedding as he began to shake and sweat. While the images and sounds poured vividly through his mind, things slowly came into focus; this was no ordinary dream. While sleeping, Daniel saw before him the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea. The fury of the wind shook Daniel to his core and he could feel that he was witnessing something on a divine scale. From the sea four great beasts emerged, each different from one another. The vividness of the beasts was unlike any dream Daniel had ever had:

The first beast was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. As Daniel’s eyes followed the feathers attached to the beast they were plucked off and it stood on its two hind legs like a human being. Before he had time to contemplate what had happened, a second beast emerged from the deep. This one looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side and had three tusks coming from its mouth. Suddenly a voice cried out to the second beast, “Arise, devour many bodies!” Immediately a third beast arose, this one like a leopard with four heads and four wings of a bird on its back. Finally, a fourth beast appeared in Daniel’s dream, this one too terrible to describe and unlike any natural animal on earth. The fourth beast had iron teeth and was devouring everything in its sight while crushing anything it could under its feet. Daniel saw its ten horns jolting off in every direction, and a little horn suddenly appeared requiring three of the original horns to be plucked up by their roots. The terror of these four beasts gripped Daniel’s soul, as he stood transfixed before them. But before he could even move thrones were set in place in the sky and an Ancient One took his throne. The Ancient One’s clothing dazzled whiter than anything Daniel had ever seen and the throne burned with fiery flames yet remained unconsumed. Surrounding the Ancient One Daniel witnessed a thousand thousands serving him as the great book was opened. Immediately the fourth beast was put to death and its body destroyed. And then one like a Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven. The Ancient One gave him dominion, glory, and kingship, an everlasting dominion where all people, nations, and languages would serve him. As Daniel stood witnessing this cosmic battle he was greatly troubled and frightened. Before he awoke he approached one of the attendants, an angel, near the throne of the Ancient One and questioned him about the truth of the vision: “As for the four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever – forever and ever.”  And as Daniel awoke from the frightening vision, he quickly reached for some parchment in order to write down everything he had seen.

Daniel 7 is one of those scripture passages that pastors either love, or loathe, to preach. The ones that love preaching on apocalyptic texts will often stand in the pulpit and proclaim wonderful messages. Their sermons come to them naturally and they see the scripture as being straightforward and easily explained. And then you have preachers like me, who are daunted by a text such as this. The connections with our daily living are no so cut-and-dry, and the passage demands prolonged attention. For me, Daniel’s dream is not one that can be simply explained, but must be proclaimed.

This was no ordinary dream, because Daniel was no ordinary man. Daniel was a man of God, one of the beloved prophets of the Old Testament. Daniel was the one who correctly interpreted the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the one who was friends with the three men who survived the fiery furnace, the one who was thrown into the lions’ den for praying and then delivered from their jaws of destruction. Daniel lived his life faithful to the One who had created him and breathed into him the breath of life. Daniel believed in God’s righteousness at a time when God seemed absent from the lives of the Israelites as they waited in Babylonian captivity. Daniel was no ordinary man, and this had been no ordinary dream. This was a vision given to Daniel by God in order that he could experience God’s glory and understand the world around him.

The dream goes against everything we understand about the world: The beasts are combinations of natural animals, and are absolutely terrifying; the fiery throne of the Ancient One burns in the sky, but rests unconsumed; one like a Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven and is given total dominion. Daniel’s dream is an apocalyptic vision, not because it explains the “end of the world,” but because it is a way of revealing God’s action in the world. Daniel lived during a time of significant Israelite persecution, a time where people were thrown in furnaces or lion’s dens for worshipping the wrong God. God revealed this vision to Daniel to show how even when the most terrible rulers dominate on earth, even when people are devoured by the beasts of the world, God’s rule is swift and everlasting. God’s glory and kingdom is one that shall endure forever and ever. There is no epic cosmic battle between the fourth beast and the Ancient One – before Daniel can even fully appreciate what he is witnessing the Ancient One destroys the fourth beast immediately. God’s rule extends far beyond our expectations and imaginations.

For far too long, apocalypses have been understood as something that either happened in the distant past, or are events that will culminate in the distant future. The cosmic quality of the visions lends to these separate interpretations, but apocalypses also reveal God’s character and actions to us right now today. In Daniel’s dream the four beasts come from the great sea and reign destruction over the earth. I wonder: How many of us are surrounded by beasts in our daily lives that appear far worse than those in Daniel’s dream? For Daniel there was nothing worse than a foreign ruler persecuting his people, and God presented those rulers to Daniel as beasts. Perhaps for some of us, God has presented the beasts this morning to represent terrible things in our lives; our beast might be an addiction, or unemployment, or a broken relationship. Maybe we’ve lost a child, or our way of life, or our faith in God. Truly I tell you, there are beasts in our lives surrounding us everyday. I know that for some of us when we wake up every morning, the beasts of Daniel’s apocalyptic vision have become manifest in what seems like an unending, and very real, nightmare. Yet, like Daniel we are called to a life of faith predicated on looking to God when the world spirals out of control.

This past semester I have been serving as one of the on-call chaplains, along with your pastor Brock Meyer, at Duke University Hospital. We are required to arrive at the hospital by 8am and we cannot leave until 8 am the following morning. We are there to serve and respond to the many pastoral needs of the hospital, both patients and staff. A few weeks ago while making my way from one patient’s room to another I received an urgent page on my beeper. Before arriving to the designated room, I could hear the patient screaming down the hall. The situation was incredibly chaotic when I entered, the nurses and doctors were yelling, the patient was attempting to, and then succeeded, in ripping out her IV, and I stood there in the middle not sure what to do. I attempted to mediate and within a few minutes a compromise had been made. The patient desperately wanted to the leave the hospital but she was not well enough to do so, and the staff feared that if they let her leave the room she would attempt to leave the hospital, so I was assigned the task of walking the patient around the hospital, allowing her to escape from her room for a little while, before bringing her back.

As the patient and I made our way through the halls, I offered her my arm to steady her walking, and we began to talk. “I just can’t stand being here,” she said, “At night I can’t sleep because of all the noises of the hospital, and whenever I finally fall asleep, I wake up feeling like I’m in a nightmare. I just feel like I’m losing control.” As we navigated our way through the continuing corridors I encouraged her to speak all of her fears and frustrations; I learned about how she can no longer take care of herself but fears losing her independence, I learned about how lonely she felt and how scared she was about going back to an empty house. I learned about how she knew that God loved her, but she had a hard time seeing it in her life. “What about your church?” I asked, “Have they been able to help?” She shook her head, “I haven’t been to church in some years, after I started getting sick I realized I wasn’t able to keep helping and serving others, and I didn’t feel like I should go anymore.”

In the dream it is God, the Ancient One, who is in control. Though the beasts arise from the great sea, God’s purposes run triumphant over and against them. And then it is the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven who inherits the dominion of God. In keeping his gaze on the divine, Daniel’s vision of the world is made right. He begins to see a world where the foreign rulers are no longer in control, but God is the one who reigns. He begins to imagine the way the world could be through faith in the Ancient One on High. Daniel was given his apocalyptic dream so that he could envision a new beginning for the world.

Dreams are beginnings. It is from our dreams that our lives can be changed. Many of us dream about success, earning high wages, and making the world a better place for our children. We dream about moving out of difficult situations, doctors finding a cure for our cancers, a future without war and suffering. We dream about finding eternal life after we die.

As a church we come together to worship the good God who breathed into each of us the breath of life, to sing songs of praise and lament, to question the ways of the world and compare them to the ways of God, to dream about making God’s kingdom come on earth. This church is where our dreams begin. We listen to the Word proclaimed through scripture and song, imagining a world more like the one Jesus calls us to. We believe in a God who makes our dreams into realities.

For the rest of our time together that afternoon in the hospital, the patient and I continued in silence. I kept thinking about all the fears she had shared with me, and I marveled at how calm she had become after the episode in her room. Before I brought her back to her room I placed my hand on her shoulder and looked into her pale blue eyes, “Ma’am I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said about your life. I know that you are afraid; afraid of losing your independence, afraid of being lonely. Maybe now is the perfect time for you to go back to your church. I know you’re worried about not being able to help other, but perhaps the best way you can follow Christ is to let your brothers and sister in Christ serve you. Now is the time for you to receive love.”

At the end of Daniel’s dream, after questioning about the meaning of the vision he was told that the Holy Ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever; Daniel learned that the people of God will share rule with the Son of Man. The Church has been granted a wonderful place in the kingdom. We are called to serve and love one another and our neighbors. The church exists as a place where that patient from the hospital can begin to dream about what will be, a place where she can be taken care of, a place where she can feel God’s love. This church can be the place where we seek refuge from the beasts in our lives, where we can hold each other through the nightmares, and celebrate in our new dreams.

Just as Daniel kept his eyes on the throne of the Ancient One, today we are called to turn our eyes to Jesus. The beasts do not have the final word. God came in the form of flesh, dwelt among us, and mounted the cross on our behalf. God has triumphed over the greatest beast, death,  and will continue to do so. Though the beasts of our lives will surely torment us, the God of Grace and Glory has come to us as the Son of Man, God has granted us to receive the kingdom, and God will continue to reign with us from this time forth, and forevermore. Amen.

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